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Remembering the Pirates of the ‘90s

The early 90’s saw a stretch of dominance for Pittsburgh’s ball club, all just to be upset in grand fashion.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke were some of the several stars for the Pirates in the 1990’s.
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

That’s so ‘90s has become a phrase that we have all heard one way or another, as the styles and trends of the decade are making their way back into mainstream culture. Whether it be flannels with jeans and a Nirvana t shirt, kids collecting cassettes or retro basketball shoes, the ‘90s are making their way around the sun again in unique fashion. Along with those things is the resurgence of the ‘90s sport’s culture, and one team that fit strangely but memorably into that culture was the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Though not quite a decade of dominance for the club, the Pirates certainly had great success in the early part of the decade, but have burned twice as bright only to burn out twice as fast. The Pirates in the ‘90s could be compared to grunge music, led by the aforementioned Nirvana and other groups like Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam. As their gritty and dark guitar-heavy songs covered the airwaves, so did the hits of the Pirates behind three straight division titles and three straight devastating playoff exits.

Gone was the ‘80s with it’s hair metal groups and parachute pants, and in was this new team of youngsters led by rising stars such as Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Tim Wakefield and Doug Drabek. Alongside them were veteran players like Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell and Mike LaValliere. Managing that bunch was (recently announced) Hall-of-Fame manager Jim Leyland, who won Manager of The Year awards in 1990 and 1992.

The Pirates would win three straight division titles from 1990-1992, a three-year stretch that was one of the best in franchise history. In each of those seasons, the team would compete in the National League Championship Series, but unfortunately never making a World Series appearance. Still though, the team was very talented and for the first time in a long time, they looked like contenders. Even the Jolly Roger logo was suddenly fierce and spectacular and to this day an iconic logo.

This is where the grunge connection starts to fit in all too well. Just as the team was reaching meteoric heights, they couldn’t manage to scrape their way to a championship. Following the devastating loss to the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 NLCS, the team fell apart and started a historic streak of losing seasons. The Pirates would embark on a record 20 straight losing seasons, with several players electing free-agency and the small market ball club struggling to adapt to raising salaries. Similarly, a lot of grunge music’s identity faded after the passing of Kurt Cobain in 1994, and new waves of alternative rock were all the rage.

Leyland has gone on record stating that those early ‘90s teams were some of the best he’s ever coached, with Bonds saying he knew the breakup was inevitable following the ‘92 season. Despite all that, there are some fond memories. Aside from some success in the mid 2010s, the ‘90s were the last time the Pirates were real contenders. The rivalry that was sparked with the Braves was iconic too, a rivalry that still gets my youth pastor fired up when talked about. And for what it’s worth, it was a time where Pittsburgh sports were collectively enjoying great success as Mario Lemieux and the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups and “Cowher Power” was in full swing for the Steelers.

It didn’t go the way we planned or the way we wanted it to end, but the Pirates shocked the world one way or another in the last millennium, and I’m just waiting for that shock to make it’s way around the sun again for another run at a World-Series, because it’s not how you got there that counts, it’s the journey along the way... cue my ‘90s playlist.